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How Do You Decide What To DO?

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  • How Do You Decide What To DO?

    For a few weeks now, I've had a plain vanilla implementation of GTD in place but it seems I don't quite "get it" yet. Of course, I don't expect to be a black belt right away, but I would REALLY appreciate if someone could help me out here!

    My obstacle seems to be choosing what to do at a given point in time. And yes, I have read the four-criteria model but while that may work for someone who has a specific block of time to to work with how about for someone like myself who works from home and has no meetings to attend, people to meet, etc?

    Is it just me or has David not put enough emphasis on prioritization and scheduling? GTD does not teach to block off time to work on major projects, for example, or prepare a short list of priorities or focus areas for the day. Or have I missed something here? Simply completing small action steps does NOT seem like a productive way to complete projects to me!

    If I've read correctly we are expected throughout the day to look through a list of unrelated (in terms of project, not context) action steps and use our intuition to determine what to complete? How can you be productive when you have say a list of 20-30 action steps for your current context and you have to decide from scratch what to do? It is only normal for certain projects to have a higher priority or sense of urgency and this cannot be gauged merely from reviewing your action lists.

    If anyone can help me understand this point better, that would be a huge help. Given the fact that David's system seems to have helped so many individuals and companies, I very much doubt it is his system that is at fault here, probably just my understanding of it's implementation.

    Many thanks in advance!

    P.S. While I appreciate any advice outside of GTD's teachings, I'm really keen on learning how to implement GTD in it's pure form, at least for now until I've got into a flow and feel ready making my own little modifications to the system to suit my business and lifestyle.

  • #2
    A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

    Small action items are what comprises big projects. By breaking a big project into small steps and completing those steps...that's how stuff gets done.

    There probably is some work to do around prioritization but that will differ from person to person. My wife thinks the yard is very important -- I think the football game is. But which task we choose to do at a given time is going to depend upon a lot of factors.

    Sometimes I just do whatever I feel like doing (from my list) at a given time. I do a task because it needs to be done and right then I feel like doing it.

    Othertimes I'm feeling more resolute and I decide to do the most unpleasant tasks just to get them done and off the list.

    Whichever you decide to do don't sell short the notion of small action items as a part of a larger whole. Paying good attention to the small things is how the big things come together beautifully.

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by invincible
      If I've read correctly we are expected throughout the day to look through a list of unrelated (in terms of project, not context) action steps and use our intuition to determine what to complete? How can you be productive when you have say a list of 20-30 action steps for your current context and you have to decide from scratch what to do? It is only normal for certain projects to have a higher priority or sense of urgency and this cannot be gauged merely from reviewing your action lists.
      The GTD answer to this question is the Weekly Review. That's when you look through your project lists and decide what is important. Anything that you can't reasonably expect to get done in the coming week should be pushed to your Someday/Maybe lists. This limits the number of items on your action lists, and also ensures that all of the items on the list are important.

      GTD also points out that the Weekly Review doesn't necessarily have to be weekly, but should be as often as needed to make sure you have captured all of your open loops. Especially at first, you may find that you need to do at least a mini-review several times a week.

      GTD is not intended as a time management system, but rather a task management system. Building a schedule from scratch, as a self-employed person must, is really outside its scope. I can recommend Julie Morgenstern's Time Management from the Inside Out as a useful approach to schedule building.

      Katherine
      Last edited by kewms; 10-12-2005, 05:27 PM.

      Comment


      • #4
        I, too, work from home and have not externally imposed deadlines.

        First, don't put something on your list of things to do unless you're actually committed to doing it. If you're not committed to doing it, it goes on the someday/maybe list. I had to have that spelled out for me, but it makes sense in retrospect.

        Next, if you're procrastinating, DA says either you aren't excited about the outcome or you haven't made your next action specific enough. So if there are things on your list that hang there, are you not excited about having them done? or are they projects that need to be broken down into next actions? The granularity of your next actions can often depend on the task. Sometimes I have to say "put dishes in dishwasher" and that leads to cleaning up the kitchen; other times I can just say "clean kitchen" and it gets done. How much are you dreading the task?

        Finally, one of the things about having your tasks all written down on a coherent list is that it tells you things about your life that you might not see otherwise, namely, do you really like doing what you have to do on a daily basis? If you hate your job, you can ignore that somewhat, but if you have to spell out all your tasks and you detest every single one of them, you have a problem. Hopefully you can find resolution in the first two suggestions I made above and not have to go through this one, though we all experience it to varying degrees.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by invincible
          My obstacle seems to be choosing what to do at a given point in time. And yes, I have read the four-criteria model but while that may work for someone who has a specific block of time to to work with how about for someone like myself who works from home and has no meetings to attend, people to meet, etc?

          Is it just me or has David not put enough emphasis on prioritization and scheduling? GTD does not teach to block off time to work on major projects, for example, or prepare a short list of priorities or focus areas for the day. Or have I missed something here?
          Upon re-reading the book, it seems clear to me that GTD was originally developed through coaching busy corporate executive types. These people already have a lot of structure imposed on their time; they have to be in certain places at certain times doing certain things. Their lives are already highly scheduled, so scheduling is probably the last thing they need. When they get a chunk of discretionary time, they can probably look at their NA list and see something that must be done yesterday.

          But if you don't have such time structure imposed by your job, I think you have to impose it on yourself. I haven't found anyone who is productive without developing some routines or scheduling blocks of time to work on certain things. Including myself. I notice if I want to maintain the freedom to work on anything at any time, "any time" becomes "no time." "Whenever" becomes "never."

          I'm in the same situation, working from home with few constraints on my time right now. I'm more productive if I schedule blocks of time to work on certain projects. And yes, to gain momentum in some of those projects, I need to work on them continuously for awhile without switching around to other projects. I don't think I'm violating the spirit of GTD at all when I do this. I maintain special context lists for those chunks of time I want to devote to certain projects, to help me focus on just those actions during that time.

          For example, I might have a context @Computer: Programming. It doesn't make sense for me to mix programming tasks in with other tasks. I need uninterrupted time to work on the programming tasks consecutively.

          So one strategy would be
          1) Review your high-level goals and make sure you're clear about the most important project outcomes you want to achieve to support them.
          2) Schedule out blocks of time to work toward your most important goals/projects, say during a Weekly Review.
          3) Use context lists to focus on actions during those blocks of time. If it's helpful to have a list of things only related to one important project, then use that list.

          Originally posted by invincible
          Simply completing small action steps does NOT seem like a productive way to complete projects to me!
          "Small" has to be realistic in scale and/or number compared to the project. If you want to save a million dollars, saving 10 cents a day ain't gonna get you there. If you want to write a novel this year, you can't write just one sentence a day. If you want to be supremely fit, you can't exercise for just one minute a day (infomercials notwithstanding). So if the project is large, the scope of time devoted to supporting actions must be correspondingly large.

          I once read 200 student papers reporting on progress in a goal-setting exercise. Many of them clearly chose action steps so small and easy that there was no way they were going to reach their goal, which had to have a deadline. And they didn't. So you need to be honest with yourself about your progress as you go along; increase the number of actions or scope of action as much as you need to accomplish the project outcome in time.

          Originally posted by invincible
          It is only normal for certain projects to have a higher priority or sense of urgency and this cannot be gauged merely from reviewing your action lists.
          Hmm. If GTD is to work for you, you must be able to look at a context list and recognize the most important and/or most urgent things you want to work on first. You have to spend some time thinking about the things on your lists. My mantra while reviewing the things on my lists is "Why do I want to do this?" This helps me figure out what's most important. Start by studying your list of projects and identifying the most important of those. Then study their corresponding next actions so that you will recognize their importance when you look at them next time. This is part of the purpose of the Weekly Review.

          I'll tell you right off the bat, though. In practice, people need strategies to prioritize beyond just studying long lists in the Weekly Review. We usually need to cut those lists down a priori. The strategy that has emerged officially from davidco is to choose ahead of time what projects to work on during the following week, then move all the rest of the projects to a Someday/Maybe list. This makes sense: you can only work actively on so many projects at a time. The more you switch back and forth between different projects, the less you'll accomplish on any one project. This strategy is not specifically presented in the book, to my knowledge, but I think it emerged because many people had long lists that they did not feel they could prioritize intuitively very easily.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by invincible
            My obstacle seems to be choosing what to do at a given point in time.
            I've had trouble with that myself. What helps me is to minimize the number of items available for a given time and context.

            Also, the (no less than) Weekly Review is when you decide what to do. That's when you make sure that everything on your lists is something that you're committed to doing. That way, when you're ready to go, you should be able to pull the appropriate list and start work.

            Is it just me or has David not put enough emphasis on prioritization and scheduling?
            It's not just you. He de-emphasises both because for most people the daily worklife throws too many curve balls.

            GTD does not teach to block off time to work on major projects, for example, or prepare a short list of priorities or focus areas for the day.
            GTD does recommend blocking out time. It's called putting it into your "hard landscape"--your calendar. Also, many of us do prepare daily focus lists and swear by them.

            Simply completing small action steps does NOT seem like a productive way to complete projects to me!
            It's not. But small action steps are very good ways to start working on projects. Once you've taken that first step, no one's going to stop you from continuing until you find a good stopping place where you can set a stake in the ground for the next small action.

            Hope this helps

            Comment


            • #7
              I would just like to add two points:

              1) GTD tries to lay out the minimum that people generally have to do to keep clear. Different jobs have different rhythms, different cycles, and these show up precisely in the character of our most challenging projects. David Allen is not going to be able to show us the best way to do those. For example, generic advice like "block out 2 hours every day" may not work for an equities trader or a surgeon. I think my most difficult projects are very difficult indeed, but around 80% of my projects can be taken care of with one clear desired outcome and between 1-10 next action steps. GTD is very effective in dealing with these, and gives us more energy and brainpower to tackle the hard projects.

              2) If you think of Next Actions as bookmarks, things may be a lot clearer. A good NA captures the state of some moving part of a project, and tells us how to start back up again. I can stare at my computer for a long time if I have a TASK like "Write section 4" but a NEXT ACTION like "Search Spires for references on Euler-Heisenberg for section 4" is much easier. I know how to start, and I can often keep going. Once I have the references I ask myself where in the manuscript these go, I put them in, I look at the manuscript, I see what the next things to do are, and I either do them or put a next action on my list. Whether you need to have list of tasks/subprojects or something similar for a given project depends on you, your work, and how you do it. But the project list and the next action list are crucial.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by invincible
                Simply completing small action steps does NOT seem like a productive way to complete projects to me!

                If I've read correctly we are expected throughout the day to look through a list of unrelated (in terms of project, not context) action steps and use our intuition to determine what to complete? How can you be productive when you have say a list of 20-30 action steps for your current context and you have to decide from scratch what to do? It is only normal for certain projects to have a higher priority or sense of urgency and this cannot be gauged merely from reviewing your action lists.
                The reason most people start GTD is that they are awash in coulda, woulda, shoulda's, their psychic ram is constantly barraging them, making any decision about what to do next, except to fight the biggest brush fire, nearly impossible. By first, collecting every single thing you have on your mind, you should be getting a clearer picture of what's in your life, and what needs to leave it, what can be put off indefinitely without worrying about losing it, what is needful now, and what the next step is for each critical thing. It's an ongoing process to learn to TRUST the system, so that your mind is relaxed and clear when you look at that list of unrelated N/As that are appropriate to your place, time and energy. It will get easier for you to intuit which NA to accomplish next.

                If you are doing the Weekly Review (more often than once a week if need be at the beginning) then you are already prioritizing. As you cull out things that are no longer important, things that can be done in 2 minutes or less, and things that you worried about before (but are now learning to let go, because you trust that you have captured them in your system), the NA list becomes more focused and you become more able to manage your actions.

                To paraphrase David on page 18 of GTD, you can't manage time, you can't manage information, you can't manage priorities, you can only manage your own actions.

                It seems backwards, but you have to do the system awhile to learn to trust the system (even if you believe in the system). I'm not saying that you'll ever catch completely up, but you will be so much further ahead of the game, if you churn out as many NAs as you can and trust that you will see the progress in your next review.

                Did I confuse you totally now?

                Elena

                Comment


                • #9
                  What to do next?

                  David Allen provided an answer of sorts in his September 19th blog entry - There is a priority code...

                  I can't really plan my day too strictly, as much of my work arises according to circumstances during the day. I still know, intuitively, if you will, which actions will move me toward the desired outcomes, and deadlines must be taken into account. The leverage David mentions is always hovering and impacts my choices.

                  I think most of us have some method of setting priorities, whether it's selecting the most important things to accomplish that day, taking into account energy level, using Covey's quadrants, or, as I prefer, using my intuition.

                  Carolyn

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by andersons
                    I once read 200 student papers reporting on progress in a goal-setting exercise. Many of them clearly chose action steps so small and easy that there was no way they were going to reach their goal, which had to have a deadline. And they didn't. So you need to be honest with yourself about your progress as you go along; increase the number of actions or scope of action as much as you need to accomplish the project outcome in time.
                    That sounds interesting. If you'd care to elaborate, what was the assignment? Was it part of a larger study? What did the students conclude from the exercise, and was it anything like you expected?

                    Originally posted by invincible
                    It is only normal for certain projects to have a higher priority or sense of urgency and this cannot be gauged merely from reviewing your action lists.
                    I'm wondering if you are really having trouble guaging the relative importance of your next actions, or whether you are second guessing yourself, i.e. "am I doing GTD correctly?". I can't look at your lists and understand what's most important, but I suspect YOU can.

                    I find that GTD helps not so much with figuring out the very best thing to do now, but with managing commitments, the "knowing and being comfortable with what you're NOT doing now" that comes as you trust the system you've created.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by ActionGirl
                      That sounds interesting. If you'd care to elaborate, what was the assignment? Was it part of a larger study? What did the students conclude from the exercise, and was it anything like you expected?
                      No, thank goodness it wasn't part of a larger study, and it wasn't my idea. But it was enlightening to see the students try to set a goal and achieve it (or at least pretend to). They had to apply the a bunch of concepts from goal-setting research: goals had to be specific, measurable, challenging, have a deadline, etc. Basic stuff. They had to set an outcome goal in Week 1 along with some process goals that would help achieve the outcome goal. They had to write about their progress 3 more times, for a total of 4 reports. In each report, they had to incorporate some new concept and report how it went. So I read 800 of these reports.

                      The first thing that shocked me was that setting goals seemed so foreign to most of the students. Many reported never having heard of or done anything like this before. These were university students who were in the top 10% of their high school classes, FWIW.

                      The second thing I noticed was that I could predict right away in the first report whether they would achieve their goals, just by reading the process goals they chose to work toward their outcome goals.

                      The third pattern I noticed was that those who reported wanting to achieve a goal because it would impress others failed spectacularly every time.

                      The fourth and most important thing I noticed was that MOST of them clearly chose goals that were either way too hard or way too easy to achieve. And goal difficulty was an important factor that was introduced to them right away, so this means they were unable to apply the principle at least in this first attempt. For example, one student wrote something like "I want to exercise every single day for the next 10 weeks. I've never been an athlete or played any sports or exercised before. . ." The way this goal is set up, a one-day lapse is complete failure. The next report reads, "Well, I haven't made much progress toward my goal. In fact, I haven't exercised one time yet. . ."

                      The fifth thing I noticed was that, besides goal difficulty, a major obstacle to achievement was unfavorable social comparison. Over and over, students reported comparing themselves to others and then giving up because they weren't as good. For instance, the non-exerciser was afraid that others running on the track would notice he was so slow. It was a little depressing to see how debilitating social comparison can be.

                      The last thing I noticed was that the few students who successfully achieved a challenging goal already had a great deal of previous success in the domain of the goal. They initially reported what they had achieved in the past, and then outlined what they wanted to achieve in the future and how.

                      Most of the students reported learning a lot from the exercise, though. Mainly that they could achieve more than they thought they could, but that next time they needed to set an easier (75%) or harder (20%) goal.

                      However, one student I remember vividly because he expressed such an ambitious goal, but he also detailed an impressive plan to achieve it, right from the start. He said that he had just joined the track team, that he had never run track before, but that he wanted to be the university's top sprinter by the end of the season. I know some stuff about athletic training, so I knew his detailed and specific plan was impressive. I remember thinking he was either going to be spectacularly successful or else he was going to crash and burn. It turned out to be the former. I would see him at the gym, focused on training hard. Not only did he become the university's top sprinter, he was the only one on his team to make it to some regional (?) event and place in it. He was very inspiring, I must say!

                      I did the same exercise and reports myself, explicitly setting and measuring a vague sort of goal I already had. I didn't think I would benefit from the exercise -- but I did. Writing down the goal, finding a way to measure progress, and reporting how it was going had a large impact overall. I have been setting goals, sometimes formally, mostly informally, for a long time, but this level of formality was amazingly motivational. For me, at least.

                      In the end, though, I believe that it's not so much about setting goals for yourself as discovering them. If I set a goal and then fail to achieve it, I use the experience to learn what I didn't understand about myself when I set the goal. The understanding is necessary in order to find the goals that will challenge and motivate me. You can tell people to set an appropriately challenging goal, but they have to find out what that is through trial and error.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        andersons,

                        Thanks for that masterful analysis of your study. Very impressive and inspiring.

                        moises

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Thanks andersons! All interesting observations.

                          Originally posted by andersons
                          In the end, though, I believe that it's not so much about setting goals for yourself as discovering them. If I set a goal and then fail to achieve it, I use the experience to learn what I didn't understand about myself when I set the goal. The understanding is necessary in order to find the goals that will challenge and motivate me. You can tell people to set an appropriately challenging goal, but they have to find out what that is through trial and error.
                          This rings true for me too, though I've never seen it articulated it so well. The concept of "discovering goals" should be part of the introduction to the project. It might help a little with the negative aspects of social comparison too. Come to think of it, it's not surprising that so many young people set goals that were too hard or easy, or otherwise problematic. Well, at least they've started the trial and error process.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Wow, what a response! Thanks so much to everyone who replied, I really didn't expect so much feedback and am very grateful for all the help I've recieved.

                            It seems the most common response (not that other points made don't have merit!) is to be ruthless when choosing what projects to commit to during my weekly review and make the next actions as specific as possible. I have noticed that every single time I go through my project and next actions lists and shuffle things around or rewrite some of the items on the lists, I feel a little better organised each time.

                            Other points that really helped me was realising that being self-employed, it is important for me to create my own routine/schedule and that this is not really the objective of GTD, since as one poster pointed out it is more a task management system than a time management system.

                            Also, the suggestion of using context lists specific to my areas of work or bigger projects/goals makes complete sense. It's clear the standard context lists (@calls, @computer, @office, etc.) are not suited to my environment, so that's certainly something I'll be focusing on.

                            The idea of imagining your next action list as bookmarks where I can start and pick projects up from does make sense too, and I can see how making your next actions as discrete as possible will help to ensure I do not procrastinate. Someone also mentioned getting clear on the relative importance of each next action by associating them with the corresponding project. That makes sense too.

                            Well, I've certainly got a lot to work from here. I do have many questions I'd like to ask, but I'll create seperate posts for them in time, I don't want this post to become too cluttered and confusing. I think my initial focus will be on designing my own routine/schedule to work from. This seems to be my bottleneck, since I'm working with 6-8 straight hours every single day and have no real structure to my day. I do like to be flexible though, so perhaps this is something that could be part of my daily planning routine rather than a set weekly schedule. Getting clear on my higher level goals so I can see what outcomes are important to me will also help me plan my work more effectively.

                            Thanks again to everyone who replied!

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              For anyone self-employed, it is essential that you learn to:

                              "Make it up, and then make it happen."

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